We Need to Transform Our Food Systems for Human, Animal, and Environmental Health
by Dr. Hope Ferdowsian
August 8, 2023
For most of the twentieth century, scientists were confounded by a mysterious virus that was first identified in US military personnel in 1918. Over two to three years, the virus spread across the globe to become the most severe pandemic in recent history.
The virus infected about a third of the global population, and at least 50 million people died. Mortality was especially high among children younger than five, young adults, and those over the age of 65. The US had been drained of physicians and nurses due to military service during the First World War, so calls were made to anyone with medical training to help fight the pandemic.
Part of the mystery surrounding the virus was solved in 1997 when scientists were able to genetically sequence recovered pieces of lung tissue infected by the microbe—which we now know was an influenza A H1N1 virus, the cause of the Great Influenza epidemic.
Today, scientists continue to debate the precise origins of the 1918 pandemic and what made the virus so deadly. That is still a mystery. However, we now know that humans, birds, and pigs were all involved in one way or another.
The human virus was likely derived from an avian influenza virus, and pigs were infected by humans. The 1918 virus then diverged into two independent lineages—one in humans and one in pigs. Since 1918, all subsequent influenza A pandemics and seasonal epidemics have been caused by descendants (human and pig lineages) of the 1918 virus.
Over the years, scientists have pieced together more information about the 1918 pandemic, and its connection to subsequent pandemics—including the 2009 H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic.
The first human infection with “swine flu” was detected in children in California in April 2009. And by June of the same year, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global pandemic. Schools were closed and doctors struggled to identify treatment strategies.
Two waves of the pandemic passed before the WHO announced an end to the pandemic in August of 2010. Nonetheless, this virus continues to circulate and cause illness, hospitalization, and deaths worldwide every year.
Of course, all of this sounds too familiar.
Although the exact origins of the 1918 virus and SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—are still under investigation, what has become crystal clear is that the poor treatment of animals and the environment increases the risk for outbreaks.
In fact, all human-animal interfaces pose a risk, and 99 percent of all human cases of recurring zoonoses (animal-borne diseases) come from domesticated animals and their products.
As scientist Matthew Hayek pointed out in the Nature journal Science Advances, infectious diseases have emerged following deforestation, ecosystem degradation, encroachment into animals’ habitats, the commercial trade in animals, and intensive animal farming, creating an “infectious disease trap of animal agriculture.”
Food systems—including the global nutrition transition, in which diets have shifted from plant-based diets to diets laden with animal products—fuel the risk for multiplying emerging infectious diseases.
OUR FOOD SYSTEMS, CHRONIC DISEASE, AND HUNGER
The influence of a shift to diets high in animal products extends well beyond communicable disease risks to include noncommunicable disease risks such as obesity, heart disease, and cancer—while also failing to solve the problem of malnutrition.
Diseases such as heart disease and cancer are now the top killers in the US, where, on average, one person consumes about 100 kg (greater than 200 lbs) of meat each year. And this trend has expanded to other countries.
In the early twenty-first century, concern about rising chronic disease rates prompted the WHO to issue a Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity, and Health, recommending that governments create “supportive population-based environments through public policies that promote “more fruit and vegetables, as well as nuts and whole grains…moving away from saturated animal-based fats to unsaturated vegetable-based fats.”
That’s a critical message and strategy, especially since the global health-related costs of red and processed meats in 2020 alone was $285 billion US dollars.
The Global Strategy is also important to ending hunger. Numerous UN bodies, including the UN Environment Program, have indicated that food systems are key to ending hunger.
But currently, almost half of the world’s cropland is used to feed animals for food production. Studies have shown that if grains currently used in industrial animal farming were used to feed humans, these grains could feed more than 3 to 4 billion people each year and free up billions of hectares for natural vegetation, forests, and ecosystems.
OUR FOOD SYSTEMS AND THE CLIMATE CRISIS
A shift in agricultural land use and practices could also help reverse greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet in deadly ways. Greenhouse gas emissions from animal-based foods are twice those of plant-based foods, primarily due to differences in methane production and carbon sink loss through rainforest destruction for grazing and grain production.
And those who contribute the least to climate change suffer the most from health risks that include heart and lung disease, infectious diseases, and injuries or deaths from extreme weather events.
As legal scholar Charlotte Blattner has pointed out in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, just transitions in agriculture are a critical step in tackling climate change. Just transitions away from intensive animal farming would also benefit workers and communities disproportionately affected by air, water, and land pollution associated with animal waste, agrochemicals, and antimicrobial use in industrial animal farming.
But the benefits of just transitions in the food sector don’t stop there.
OUR FOOD SYSTEMS AND WORKERS
Transforming our food system could help workers and communities in other ways. It could save workers’ lives.
According to a US report released this year, meatpacking companies “continue to be among the most dangerous industries,” increasing the risk for lacerations, infections, and amputations.
More than 100 years after author Upton Sinclair declared the massive slaughterhouse complex in a major US city as a “jungle,” scientists have documented numerous negative effects of slaughterhouses on workers and communities. But the risks aren’t just physical.
For example, in 2009, sociologist Amy Fitzgerald and her colleagues published an eight-year analysis of more than 500 US counties, which found that slaughterhouse employment increases arrests for violent crimes, including sexual violence.
This year, Jessica Slade and Emma Alleyne published a review showing that slaughterhouse workers have a higher rate of mental health disorders.
OUR FOOD SYSTEMS AND ANIMALS
Animals also suffer tremendously in slaughterhouses and factory farms.
Just as humans would, animals feel pain from disease; cuts and burns; losing their fur, feathers, and skin; and being killed.
Animals, including birds and mammals used in farming, are also vulnerable to fear, depression, anxiety, acute and posttraumatic stress, and grief—particularly when they are separated from their families, hurt, and deprived of a natural life.
In my book Phoenix Zones, I explore the science of physical and mental suffering and resilience in human and nonhuman beings. There, I describe how the freedom to live one’s life as one chooses, and to be free from exploitation, are critical to physical and mental health and wellbeing—and how the rights, health, and wellbeing of all species are connected.
OPPORTUNITIES TO TRANSFORM OUR FOOD SYSTEMS
The interconnected problems that humans, animals, and the environment face may seem overwhelming—but complex crises offer opportunities for bold solutions.
At PZI, we have argued for a Just One Health approach, which recognizes that humans and other animals must be free from exploitation to meet their self-determined needs to thrive in natural, safe, and healthy environments.
Only then can individuals, communities, and society be healthy.
A Just One Health approach offers a framework for just transitions away from human, animal, and environmental exploitation in animal farming, and toward nature-based solutions—including plant-based agriculture, which doesn’t pose the same risk of disease, hunger, global warming, or violence.
A Just One Health approach offers a lens to assess and improve proposals and policies that cover
- food and agricultural subsidies;
- industry regulations and oversight;
- the priorities of international finance institutions; and
- other legal and economic drivers of worsening production and consumption patterns.
Historically, the meat and dairy industry has received sweeping legal and regulatory exemptions, which has had negative consequences for workers, animals, communities, and ecosystems. But, as Charlotte Blattner has pointed out, the international legal basis for just transitions in the agriculture sector are already in place, based in part on lessons learned through the energy sector.
We must make those changes now.
We keep trying to outrun the risks created by exploitation of animals and the environment. But it isn’t working.
We are smarter than this. If we can sequence viruses from a century ago, we can be smarter about our food systems.
The stakes are too high to be anything other than boldly defiant against the status quo.
Dr. Hope Ferdowsian is an internal medicine, preventive medicine, and global public health physician, and president of Phoenix Zones Initiative.